Perhaps the oddest thing about visiting Lebanon is the fact that, as a Kildare native, because you have heard about it for so long, you fall into the trap of thinking you actually know something about what our Defence Forces are doing there as part of the UNIFIL mission.
On a damp, changeable Lebanese day last week, as I walked around one of the Irish Battalion’s posts, UN 6-50 on the disputed UN-enforced border between Israel and Lebanon, the reality of just how little I had known before dawned.
Ali Saad grew up in Tibnin, living alongside Irish Peacekeepers.
“I come from a poor family. Only for the Irish I could not have had the future I have now,” he told the Leinster Leader, “The Irish have had a lot to do with the position I’m in now; my future and the future of my children, the way I think and the way I feel. It is our wish to continue this part of the history.”
It has long been tradition with the Irish members of the UNIFIL mission to engage in humanitarian and community work in their area of operations.
Currently some members teach English lessons to local people, provide the local hospital with water supplies and recently troops supported the installation of a generator to aid local electricity supplies.
An orphanage which previous generations of Irish UNIFIL soldiers helped to build and fund throughout the years in Tibnin, is home to 65 children and continues to get support from the troops own novelty fundraisers.
Ali is a member of the board for the Tibnin orphanage.
“Cead Mile Failte!” he greets us on arrival.
He is eager to show me what Irish hands have helped achieve and support throughout the years.
“The Irish and previous Irish battalions and the Irish Government have a lot to do with this orphanage; they have supported us since the beginning in 1979. They looked after the children in this orphanage several times and we never forget the Irish friendship throughout the years, even when the Irish were withdrawn from Lebanon,” he says.
“There are so many occasions and examples of what the Irish soldiers have provided to this orphanage especially those people who even left the army and they are veterans, they come from year to year and visit south Lebanon and they also visit our orphanage.”
The Irish soldiers continue to raise money for the orphanage in Tibnin.
The current money maker is a dollar fine for anyone who forgets to remove their head gear when they walk into the canteen and before Christmas there was a raffle for a huge teddy bear, who just so happened to make his way to the girls in the orphanage as well as the raffle earnings.
“The Irish soldiers continue to support us,” adds Ali Saad, “There were many times when this area was a hotspot, there was a lot of bombardment day after day. Of course the Irish would provide security and the soldiers would stay with the children here for 24 hours, they’d take shelter with the children.”
The 105th Infantry Battalion, the 50th Irish unit to serve in Lebanon, are largely made up of troops from the south, Cork, Kilkenny, Clonmel, but as with any mission, there are many links and even a few Kildare faces among the ranks.
Gunner Jason McGannon from Newbridge is the Chef at the Irish Battalion UN 6-50 post.
He was lucky enough to make it home at Christmas on leave to see his daughter.
“It’s very tough for family,” he told me, “but they understand my job in the Army.”
It seems that Gnr. McGannon’s family would be better at understanding the situation than many others; he is after all, the fifth generation of his family to serve in the Army.
He is particularly proud of his father’s five trips to Lebanon and the fact that he is now keeping up this tradition.
“It has always been my ambition to come out to Lebanon,” he said, “This is my fourth trip, I was in Eritrea, Liberia and Chad, but this is my first time here.”
As we sit down to a beautiful lunch prepared by Gnr. McGannon, I notice a St. Patrick’s Day poster of events on the canteen wall, the highlight of which, following the ‘Leprechaun lookalike’ competition, is a quiz, offering internet access cards to the winning team of four.
Sgt. Noel Poole hasn’t signed up to a team yet. He is originally from Newbridge, but lives in Suncroft and this is his seventh UN peacekeeping tour.
“My first tour was in 1988 to Lebanon. I was out the 63rd was my first one, the 71st battalion, the 75th Battalion, 83rd Battalion, the 34th Component, which was in 2006 when there was the reoccupation and then I was with the 40th Component in Kosovo,” he tells me proudly.
Sgt. Poole is also very proud of his home, a converted school-house that he is looking forward to getting back to.
Like many I speak to, being away from family is difficult for Sgt. Poole; he misses his wife Evelyn, son Jamie (20) and daughter Abby-Lee (13).
Thoughts often turn to what members of the Irish Battalion will do when they get home in May, after their six month stint.
“I suppose it’ll be nice to get home and just chillax,” says Sgt. Poole, “and catch up with family. I’m the Chairman of the local football club, Newtown Rovers, so it’ll be great to get back in there and see what’s happening. My sister is only after having her first baby, so I arrive back on the Thursday and she’s having the Christening on the Saturday. Then the following weekend, I have a niece and it’s her first holy communion, so the first two weekends are already planned.”
St. Patrick’s Day is yet another one of those occasions where it is hard not to think of home.
“At home we have a routine we get up in the morning, go into the parade and that,” adds Sgt. Poole.
St. Patrick’s Day in Lebanon is different.
Following weeks of preparation, the 105th Infantry Battalion are presented by Minister of State Paul Kehoe with the traditional Shamrock, they attend mass and are then presented with their mission medal by Major-General Paolo Serra Force Commander of UNIFIL.
Local people, who have grown up surrounded by Irish Peacekeepers, flock to show their affection for them.
Old friends, Irish UN veterans and Lebanese, translators, workers and community leaders embrace one another and as the Irish national anthem is played, I realise it suddenly means so much more to me than it did before.